Students can wear logos protesting school dress code, says federal judge

Thursday, September 14, 2000

Public school students in Wilson County, Tenn., have a First Amendment
right to wear messages criticizing the school dress code, a federal judge has

Last October, Cory Vinson, a student at Mount Juliet High School, and
his sister, Kista Vinson, an eighth-grader at Mount Juliet Junior High, wore
shirts criticizing the school board’s adoption of a strict dress code policy.

The shirts bore the messages: “The Board voted and all I got was this
lousy uniform” and “I miss my real clothes.”

School officials suspended the students for wearing the shirts. The
students then sued in federal court, contending that the school board had
violated their First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge John Nixon ruled on Sept. 6 in
Vinson v. Wilson County School Board
that the school could not punish the students for wearing protest logos.

Nixon reasoned that “public schools can regulate or suppress speech
and expressive activity of students” when the student speech is vulgar,
school-sponsored or disruptive of the educational environment.

The students contended that their protest should be given the same
protection as the U.S. Supreme Court granted to several Iowa public school
students in its 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines
Indep. Community School Dist
. In Tinker, the high court ruled that school officials
violated the First Amendment rights of several students when they suspended
them for wearing black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam

“As an initial matter, the Court finds that the wearing of the protest
logos in this case embodies exactly the kind of speech that is entitled to
First Amendment protection,” Nixon wrote.

Nixon also determined that the student’s wearing of the logos “had the
purpose of conveying a particularized message, namely, opposition to the
Board’s dress code policy.”

School board officials argued that the dress code policy was
content-neutral and prohibited all logos. However, Nixon noted that school
officials allowed students to wear school mascot logos and Tennessee Titans

“The Board prohibited the students’ speech in a content-discriminatory
manner, but there is no evidence nor even allegation that the protest logos
caused any disruption in the classroom or at school,” Nixon wrote.

He concluded that “the Board is in violation of the plaintiffs’ First
Amendment right.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said that
a decision was made to challenge only the restriction on the logos rather than
the dress code itself because most dress codes have been upheld under current

Nixon’s issuance of a preliminary injunction is a “wonderful ruling,”
she said. “However, the decision is also a wonderful lesson for all Wilson
County students because they have learned that they do not lose First Amendment
rights to protest when they enter the schoolyard.

“These students took the lessons they learned in class and turned them
into practice, she said. “It is important to realize as well that these
students protested in a nondisruptive manner.”

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